3 ideas for a two-week trip to Japan

Discover the best of this incredible country

A curious mixture of fast-paced modernity and timeless traditions, Japan is overflowing with incredible sights. From neon-lit Tokyo and leafy, temple-filled Kyoto to the country's mountainous interior – home to tea plantations, castles and hot springs – there's an almost bewildering array of things to do.

Whether you're after a shot of culture, fancy sampling the best cuisine or just want to see as many highlights as possible, Cory Varga suggests three different itineraries to help you plan a two-week trip to Japan.

Kanenori via Pixabay/CC0

Best for highlights seekers

Route: Tokyo–Hakone–Nikko–Nagano–Yudanaka–Narita

Begin your two-week tour in search of Japan’s highlights by exploring its capital city, Tokyo. Start with vibrant Shinjuku, a district filled with explosions of colour from its many neon lights and jumbo ads, before braving the forever busy Shibuya Crossing.

The wide boulevards of Ginza – Tokyo’s most exquisite shopping district – are the perfect place for a little retail therapy. Don't forget to sample fresh sushi in an authentic Japanese restaurant and, if you dare, ask for fugu sashimi, the poisonous puffer fish – it takes at least four years of training before a chef is allowed to serve it.

Next, escape the capital’s bustle by finding your zen in Hakone, a nearby mountainous town known for its onsen (hot springs) and its views of Japan's iconic volcano, Mount Fuji. A couple of hours north is Nikko, home to the little-known Takino’o Path, a Buddhist pilgrimage route through an ancient cedar forest. Continue your travels around Lake Chuzenji, an off-the-beaten-path destination that rewards travellers with its beautiful forested scenery, especially during autumn when the foliage flames red and gold.

From nearby Utsunomiya, it's a high-speed journey via shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano, home to the legendary Togakure Ninja School. Then, hop on a local train towards Yudanaka, where you can spend time unwinding in 400-year-old Shibu Onsen, a historic hot spring town. After a night in a ryokan (tradtional Japanese inn), enjoy soaking in the nearby hot springs.

Back to Tokyo, bring your trip to an end by visiting the small city of Narita. Buy delicious street food from the stalls dotted all around Narita-san temple or attend an early morning tuna auction at the Narita Wholesale Market.

Billboards in colourful Shinjuku, Tokyo © 123RF.com/Luciano Mortula

Best for culture buffs

Route: Kyoto–Osaka–Himeji–Hiroshima

Hankering after a taste of Japanese culture? Then head to the country's old capital city, Kyoto. Located in the Kansai region, Kyoto avoided the damage inflicted on other cities during World War II, making it the perfect place to explore a more traditional Japan.

In this "City of Ten Thousand Shrines", why not start with a visit to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, a spectacular complex that blankets the forested slopes of Mount Inari. Then, photograph an incredible sunset over Kyoto from the Yotsutsuji intersection, before descending through the countless vermillion torii (shrine gates) towards the foot of the mountain. Later, take a stroll through the ancient streets of Gion, and learn about traditional forms of entertainment by enjoying a geisha show. Before you leave Kyoto, don't forget to visit the bamboo forests of Arashiyama – here, you can sample matcha ice cream from local street vendors before wandering through the forest's shaded greenery.

Next up: Osaka, the historical home of Japan's merchants. With an eclectic live music and comedy scene, as well as some of the best food in the country, this city is at the forefront of contemporary Japanese culture. Saying that, don’t miss a traditional kabuki show: these classical Japanese dance-dramas usually involve elaborate costumes, colorful makeup and eye-catching wigs.

Dating from 1333, the ethereal Himeji Castle is next on your list. This beloved UNESCO World Heritage Site, thought to resemble a bird taking flight, is one of Japan's finest buildings. If you visit during April, you'll be lucky enough to see this otherworldly castle surrounded by pretty cherry blossom.

From Himeji, travel via shinkansen to the city of Hiroshima, home to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. The only structure left standing after the atomic explosion in 1945, it is a moving reminder to those who lost their lives. End your journey with a visit to nearby Miyajima Island to admire the famous floating torii gate at dusk.

Geishas walk beneath vermillion torii (shrine gates) at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto © 123RF.com/Matej Kastelic

Best for foodies

Route: Kobe–Osaka–Kyoto–Uji–Nara

In recent years, Japan has become synonymous with delicious food, with its Kansai region often referred to as the "World’s Kitchen." Any culinary quest should start in the city of Kobe, where you can relish some world-famous, mouthwatering Kobe beef.

In Osaka, fall in love with the city’s signature dish, okonomiyaki. This cabbage-based savoury pancake is filled with things like shrimp, pork and octopus. If you're still hungry, head to the city's Kuromon Ichiba Market and enjoy fresh yakitori (chicken skewers) and matcha sweets.

Continue your foodie journey in Kyoto and eat your way along Shijo Dori, a street lined with small shops selling local delicacies. After a good night's sleep in a ryokan, sit down to a kaiseki: this traditional multi-course dinner is unique to the region. Don’t forget to indulge with sukiyaki in Ponto-chō – prepared at the table, this delicious dish consists of thinly sliced beef cooked alongside tofu and leafy greens in a rich, sweet sauce.

Found between Kyoto and Nara, your second-to-last stop is Uji. Wander through the tea plantations that surround the city, before learning the rituals of an authentic Japanese tea ceremony.

A short train ride away is Nara, where you can set out in search of kakinoha-zushi (sushi delicately wrapped in persimmon leaves), one of the city's most popular snacks. For a healthy dessert, try yamato no tsurushigaki​, delicious dried persimmons. Finish off your culinary tour by tasting the unusual narazuke, fruits and vegetables that have been pickled repeatedly in sake kasu.

A serving of okonomiyaki, Osaka's signature dish © Dreamstime.com/Varts